Internet parody penalizes gifted student

June 01, 1995|By Melanie J. Mavrides | Melanie J. Mavrides,New York Times News Service

BELLEVUE, Wash. -- In February, Paul K. Kim, indulging a time-honored urge of graduating seniors, lampooned his high school, poking fun at classmates for "majoring in football" and being preoccupied with sex.

The Korean-born student's lampoon might have faded as quietly as yearbook memories or old corsages were it not for two innovations that set it apart: He published it on the Internet's World Wide Web, in a document he titled "Unofficial Newport High School Home Page," and he included links to Internet sites that offer sexually explicit material.

Administrators at Newport High School were not amused.

Young Paul had a grade point average of 3.88, of a possible 4.0, and had scored 1510, of a possible 1600, on the Scholastic Assessment Test. Nevertheless, when the document was brought to the principal, Karin Cathey, she withdrew her support for him as a National Merit finalist, a move that ended any chance he might have had to get a $2,000 college scholarship.

Then, without his knowledge, Mrs. Cathey faxed letters to seven universities to which he had applied, including Harvard, Stanford and Columbia, informing them that she was withdrawing the school's endorsement of his National Merit Scholarship and any recommendations that high school administrators might have given him.

Mrs. Cathey informed him on March 28 of her action with regard to the scholarship. But, he says, he did not learn about the faxes to the universities until Paul Eickelberg, an admissions official at Columbia University's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, called him the next day to ask for an explanation of the school's disciplinary action.

(Columbia eventually accepted the teen-ager, awarding him a scholarship that would pay half his expenses of about $30,000 a year.)

After learning of the faxes, the youngster wrote letters to the school district appealing the loss of his chance at a scholarship and to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU in turn wrote to school administrators in this affluent suburb just east of Seattle, informing them that young Paul would sue unless his scholarship eligibility was reinstated.

Lucy Lee Helm, one of the student's ACLU-appointed lawyers, said she believed the case to be the first in which the civil liberties union had defended freedom of speech on the Internet, where information goes largely uncensored and is accessible to anyone with a personal computer and an Internet account.

In a recent interview, the 17-year-old said: "Mrs. Cathey told me that what I had done was immoral. I cried in front of her and told her that she was destroying everything I had worked so hard for."

In asking that his candidacy for a National Merit Scholarship be reinstated, the civil liberties union argues that Mrs. Cathey violated his constitutional right to free speech. But the damage may already be irreversible, the student's lawyers say. Harvard, his first choice, denied him admission.

The Bellevue School District declined to comment, saying it was investigating Mrs. Cathey's actions.

In an interview, Mrs. Cathey said Paul was not "telling the entire story; there have been other problems." She declined to elaborate but asserted that universities that rejected him had told her that the reasons were other than her letter.

Mrs. Cathey said she was most distressed by his use of the school's name on a World Wide Web page that included links to sexually explicit material.

In its letter to the school district, the civil liberties union cited several federal court decisions to argue that school officials had no authority to regulate underground student newspapers or a student's off-campus behavior.

What the youngster created, on his own time, was essentially a "humorous electronic newspaper," Ms. Helm said. Readers were able to identify the home page as a parody, she said, if for no other reason than that Paul had included a disclaimer that "no one associated with the school" was responsible for the parody except himself.

He also signed his name to the page, Ms. Helm said.

The youth, an outspoken teen-ager, is openly gay, attended the prom with his boyfriend and once directed a gay-pride day at the school.

He is gifted in the sciences as well as in creative writing, said Janet Sutherland, an English teacher who gathered a dozen signatures from faculty for a petition supporting him.

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